Is there a more sigh-worthy moment in pop music than Nat King Cole singing the opening line of “Stardust”? Against a twinkling sweep of strings, Nat’s baritone floats gracefully over the descending melody. Aside from the beautiful tone of his voice, it’s remarkable how he transforms Mitchell Parish’s florid poetry into something like conversation. The lyric was written in 1929 (to Hoagy Carmichael’s music), but when Nat recorded it nearly 30 years later, the vernacular of popular songs had become more casual. In the hands of other singers, a phrase like “purple dusk of twilight time” could have sound stilted. But Nat had a gift for communicating. He could put across a lyric with an easy, confessional tone that made you believe he was singing it just for you.
“I like to tell a story when I sing,” Cole once said. “The story has always fascinated me. I like to make people aware of words. Some singers use words simply to call attention to their voice. I do it the other way around.”
Born March 17, 1919 in Montgomery, Ala. and raised in Chicago, Nathaniel Adams Coles (he later dropped the “s”) was a professional piano player by the time he hit high school. Inspired by Earl “Fatha” Hines, Nat’s playing had a joie de vivre, full of sly riffs and grinning melodies (no less than Art Tatum called Nat one of the best jazz pianists in the world).
At 18, he formed a swinging trio with guitarist Oscar Moore and bassist Wesley Prince. The absence of a drummer was an innovation that gave the trio a light, jumpin’ jive sound. Count Basie once said of their improvisational interplay: “Those cats used to read each other’s minds—it was unbelievable.”
The trio’s first hit, in 1943, was a song that Nat wrote, “Straighten Up and Fly Right.” He borrowed the title line from his father, a preacher who often used it in his sermons. Though Nat would continue to write the occasional song for the trio, he eventually turned his attentions to interpretation. And like Frank Sinatra, once Nat sang a song, it often became exclusively his. Think of “Route 66,” “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” “(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons,” “Nature Boy” and of course, “The Christmas Song”—many singers have covered them, but they’ll always belong to Nat.
As the King Cole Trio’s star rose, their repertoire became oriented toward solo vocal turns for Nat. In the late 1940s, jazz publications like Downbeat and Metronome accused him of selling out.
Nat responded, “I know that a lot of critics think I’ve been fluffing off jazz, but I don’t think that you’ve been looking at the problem correctly. I’m even more interested in it now than I ever was. And the trio is going to play plenty of it. Don’t you guys think I ever get sick of playing those dog tunes every night? I’ll tell you why I keep on playing them. You know how long it took the trio to reach a point where we started making a little prize money and found a little success? For years we did nothing but play for musicians and other hip people. And while we played that, we practically starved to death. When we did click, it wasn’t on the strength of good jazz that we played, either. We clicked on pop songs, pretty ballads and novelty stuff. Wouldn’t we have been crazy if we’d turned right around after getting a break and started playing pure jazz again?”
In 1955, Nat finally dissolved the trio (though they would reunite a year later for the magnificent After Midnight LP) and went on to a full-time solo career as a crooner. A little known fact is that despite this move and his contract with Capitol Records, Nat continued to moonlight as a jazz pianist. Using aliases such as “Sam Schmaltz” and “Lord Calvert,” he played on album sessions by artists such as Buddy Rich, Lester Young and Willie Smith.
In November of 1956, Nat became the first black entertainer to host his own television show. The Nat King Cole Show featured Nat performing solo and with guests such as Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee, Bing Crosby, Sammy Davis, Jr. and Eartha Kitt. Right from the beginning, there was a lack of sponsors. Nat fought valiantly against the racism in the advertising industry, optimistic that good entertainment would prevail (to their credit, NBC stood behind him financially). When the show was finally canceled a year later, Nat remarked, in a rare moment of candor, “I guess Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark.”
He continued to make records and tour the world into the early ’60s. In 1964, he was diagnosed with lung cancer. A lifelong smoker, Nat tried to soldier on with his usual optimism, but the disease had spread, and his decline was rapid. He died on February 15, 1965, at the age of 47.
Like the character in one of his best-loved songs, “Nature Boy,” Nat King Cole was a guileless fellow who brought a message of love and goodwill to the world. His whole body of brilliant recorded work could almost be distilled into the last line of Eden Ahbez’s ballad: “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return.”
— by Bill DeMain
From Performing Songwriter Issue 85, May 2005